The residents who gathered around the scene of the barbaric attack in Woolwich this afternoon struggled to articulate their horror.
Some described this part of south-east London as a peaceful and quiet place, while others said there was “always trouble”. All were stunned by the cruelty that had bloodied their streets.
Olu Peluola, 53, was one of the people who saw the sickening scene unfold. “I saw a man’s body lying in the street. There was a man standing beside him holding a knife,” he said. “People were standing around. One woman was crying, saying ‘They killed him. They killed him.’”
Astonishingly, the suspected killers stood around after the alleged attack, asking passers-by to film their statements. Witnesses described how local women risked their own lives in attempt to shield the soldier victim from further indignities.
“In my opinion, they were waiting for the police to arrive to be shot by the police. That’s the only thing I can think,” one witness called James told LBC radio.
Julia Wilders, 51, who lives near the scene, said she saw one of the attackers run towards police clutching two meat cleavers when officers eventually arrived.
“He ran towards police before they could even get out of the car, and it looked like the other one was going to lift the gun up,” she said. “We were driving back and my husband said to me ‘don’t look, they’re resuscitating someone’. But apparently they were stabbing him.”
By mid-afternoon the ambulance crews had arrived in force and detectives had locked off the area surrounding the incident with layer after layer of cordons.
The sound of police helicopters filled the skies overhead as those living nearby looked on helplessly and the few who had witnessed the terrible crime tried to make sense of the terror they had seen.
Sherifah William, 29, who lives right next to where the killings happened, told how she initially feared there had been a shooting at the primary school nearby that her children attend.
Waiting with her neighbours outside the police cordon, the 29-year-old said: “When I saw the air ambulance I panicked because it landed first at the school, so I thought something had happened there.
“My neighbour called me to say there had been a shooting so I ran out to get my kids and then the police shouted to get back. I saw the body being taken away – there were so many ambulances.”
Woolwich was traditionally a white, working-class area, famous for its shipping docks and military barracks.
But over the years it has become a popular place for immigrant communities settling in Britain.
And most recently the area started on the path to “gentrification” with former factories turned into £1m luxury apartments.
Woolwich Royal Artillery Barracks has been part of the area’s history for more than 200 years and last year it hit the headlines when the prestigious King’s Troops regiment transferred there.
Robert, 65, who has resided in Woolwich for over 30 years, lives a stone’s throw from where the killings happened in Charles Grimling Walk.
He said: “It’s peaceful around here, so what’s happened is a very strange occurrence – you just can’t get your head around it.
“I’d say it’s mainly decent, working class people living here. There are lots of different cultures but we all seem to get along well. And there’s no more crime than there is in any other part of London.”
But a mother-of-one, Naomi, 27, who lives with her partner and baby in flats just yards from where the incident, painted a somewhat different picture of Woolwich. She said: “Our flat has been evacuated. I’m worried because I live adjacent to where it happened and who’s unwell. Woolwich is known for trouble.
“A lot of shootings happen near to the station and Woolwich Arsenal.”
Tributes paid to brave public
Tributes were paid last night to the courageous actions of members of the public who attempted to shield the soldier’s body from further attack.
Keith Vaz MP, the Labour chairman of the Home Affairs select committee, said: “It shows the spirit of London that people are just not prepared to allow an attack of this kind.” Patrick Mercer, Tory MP for Newark, added: “This is courage of the highest order.”
Eyewitness: One man’s version
A Twitter user called Boya Dee posted a series of tweets purporting to make up a terrifying eyewitness account of the incident. They could not be confirmed nor was he available for comment. He wrote:
“Ohhhhh myyyy God!!!! I just see a man with his head chopped off right in front of my eyes!”
“Mate ive seen alot of s*** im my time but that has to rank sumwhere in the top 3. I couldnt believe my eyes. That was some movie s***.”
“The two black bredas run this white guy over over then hop out the car and start chopping mans head off with machete!!”
“People were asking whyyy whyyy they were just saying we’ve had enough! They looked like they were on sutn! Then they start waving a revolver”
“Then thats how u know they were on sutn cos they actually went for armed feds with just two machete and an old rusty lookin revolver”
“Then the next breda try buss off the rusty 45 and it just backfires and blows mans finger clean off... Feds didnt pet to just take him out!!”